Syrian rebels go shopping for supplies and bomb-making equipment on trips to Turkey
As darkness fell on the bus depot, the doctor, the fighter and the law student stood in a corner, chain-smoking Gitanes and speaking rapidly into mobile phones. Minutes later, a black Mercedes saloon with tinted windows pulled up and all three got in.
The men, in their mid-to-late 20s, had been sent by the Free Syrian Army, which is operating under an EU and US embargo on weapons sales to Syria’s rebels, on a mission to buy supplies and bomb-making equipment in Turkey.
They were to take their purchases across the border into Aleppo Province, where they would be used on the front line of the war to depose president Bashar al-Assad. One of dozens of well-organised logistics teams dispatched to Turkey each week by the FSA, the men form part of the rebels’ attempts to keep improvised munitions flowing.
The driver, a young man with spiky hair and wearing a white and blue pin-striped shirt, announced to the others, “I’m Pizza Boy. I deliver everywhere and anywhere!” He pulled out his mobile phone and, chuckling as he scrolled through his contact list, asked, “What’s it to be today? Explosions, communications, defence equipment?”
“We need various things,” said the demure, understated fighter. He was a small man in skinny jeans, green jumper and a black and white keffiyeh scarf, his stature and quiet personality belying a skilled warrior. His colleagues claimed he single-handedly destroyed 15 tanks with rocket-propelled grenades in the last six months. “Then you need Big Uncle,” replied Pizza Boy, after a moment’s thought.
The Mercedes travelled a few blocks before coming to a busy market street. The doctor, bespectacled and earnest, got out. “I’ve arranged to meet a contact and buy antibiotics and blood. Tomorrow, I’ll hide the supplies, wrapped in silk shawls, and take them across the nearest border crossing to one of our field hospitals in Aleppo,” he explained before disappearing into the night.
The car sped off through the dark streets, and 10 minutes later the two remaining men got out at a dilapidated residential building and went up two flights of stairs, where they were greeted by a tall, thickset man in his 50s sporting a neat triangular moustache above an easy, confident grin.
Hassan “Big Uncle” Assaf greeted the men warmly and took them through to a sparsely furnished sitting room. On a table were samples of two of the main items they had come for: green phosphate powder and a bag of explosive pins, two essential ingredients used by the rebels to build artillery shells, rockets and bombs.
“Everything we buy here in Turkey is legal,” Hassan claimed. “That’s how we have to operate. The green powder is widely used as fertiliser for aubergines, the pins are extracted from the bullets for hunting rifles, and the aluminium powder we use is a common construction material.